Recently on nextdoorclifton someone posed the question, “What store is missing?” in reference to Ludlow Avenue’s business district. Possibly over a hundred people have responded by now, and while the answers have been all over the place, there were some repeats. I was pleased—and quite surprised—to see how many people exclaim that they would love to see a bookstore return to the Gaslight District.
In a way it seems funny that folks would long for something that in the spiritus mundi tends to be looked upon as antiquated and old-school. As our reading, like everything else, becomes increasingly electronic and digital, the physical book cast set aside for convenience, don’t bookstores have about as much of a place in our world as a zoetrope?
Well, not so soon (and besides, I’d love to own a zoetrope). You may have noticed that record stores (and especially the independent ones) are suddenly all kinds of popular, after that three or four minutes when everyone was convinced that our musical future would totally revolve around our computers. Recently, and tellingly, I’ve seen ads promoting books as “the new vinyl,” which makes sense. And just as veteran Cliftonites remember what it’s like to have a bookstore in the neighborhood, younger folks brought up on walmart are acutely sensitive to the difference between zero personality and color.
Having a bookstore (actually there were two at one point) added a lot to the Gaslight District. On nextdoorclifton.com someone mentioned—but couldn’t remember the name of—Kellerman’s, a store on Ormond that lasted, I don’t know, maybe a year or two. The owner of that store envisioned, but couldn’t quite pull off, a store like Kaldi’s (which, a few years later, pulled all the pieces together and became an enormous success). New World lasted decades, and the people in the neighborhood never took it for granted. Unfortunately, though, big box stores had a ravitational pull over the masses, and amazon could undersell anybody by a huge margin. Since New World folded ebooks entered the equation, providing even more competition to small bookstores, which folded all over America (it wasn’t just Ludlow Avenue). Well, the big boxes are almost all gone, ebooks sales tapered off long before people expected them to, and amazon has built an actual brick and mortar store because it has learned something those of us with any sense have known all along: bookstores are the ultimate platform for marketing books. Not only do you find out that a new book has hit the shelves (I still remember when Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon appeared in New World’s window after everyone thought the famous postmodern novelist had pursued a permanent disappearing act), plus the atmosphere of books gets under your skin. A bookstore on Ludlow Avenue would never be able to offer big fancy amazon-level discounts, but people are waking up to the fact that where you buy something can be as important as what you buy. It can erode a neighborhood, or it can help support a neighborhood.
If a bookstore were to return to the Gaslight District, it would have to do everything right. It should probably do the following:
- Include used books. This close to a university, people are constantly purging and collecting.
- Have a local authors section—and not just the new ones. How about books by Dallas Wiebe or (to go back a couple more years) Lafcadio Hearn?
- Include new novels. Those were popular at New World, and, here’s a case where bookstores + distributors had their system down.
- Sell gift cards. New World sold a lot of gift cards; they added up after a while.
- Sell records and compact discs as well. Records and compact discs could be both new and used. The new and already highly successful Plaid Room Records in Loveland handles a lot of pre-orders for vinyl, which is an ideal business model.
I worked part-time at both Kellerman’s and New World, and I still remember what bookstores brought to the neighborhood. Kellerman’s had lots of fun literary readings that brought together people in the literary community. I well remember how, on Friday nights at New World, people would walk in with ice cream cones asking, “Can I bring in ice cream?” (“That’s required,” I would answer). Some had had a drink or two before strolling in, and there was much frivolity on those nights. Sunday afternoons were quieter, with people sitting down and getting lost in a book. I got called in for New World during its last few weeks, and when people walked in the sense of loss to come was palpable. These are things I think about when I think about what a bookstore would bring to the Gaslight District. You can’t bring back the past, but you can start building new memories.